On Thursday, 7 July 2022, the 40th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted, by consensus, a resolution on Access to medicines, vaccines and other health products in the context of the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. On Monday, 11 July 2022, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Knowledge Ecology International, and the People’s Vaccine Alliance published a joint statement welcoming the Human Rights Council’s adoption of this timely resolution. For more background on the informal negotiations which witnessed contentious discussions on the principle of international solidarity and the concept of global public goods, please see: Human Rights Council heats up during informal talks on inequality, international solidarity, and intellectual property
The joint statement noted:
“This resolution sends another clear message that access to medicines and diagnostics, including COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments, is a core component of the right to health and central to other fundamental human rights, including the right to life. It is yet another rebuke to the rich countries and pharmaceutical companies that have chosen to uphold monopolies on life-saving medicines despite the human cost, which on one estimate is a preventable COVID-19 death every minute. That is a violation of human rights.
“There were deliberate attempts from some states to water down the language of this resolution and the United Kingdom and the European Union initially pushed back on the principle of international solidarity. Yet the final resolution clearly states that health is a human right and that international cooperation must be the world’s guiding principle for this pandemic and any future health crisis.
Prior to the resolution’s formal adoption on Thursday, 7 July 2022, H.E. Tovar da Silva Nunes, Permanent Representative of Brazil to the United Nations Office and other International Organizations in Geneva, presented the resolution on behalf of the Core Group (Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Senegal, South Africa, Thailand).
The Core Group traced the origins of this initiative to the former Human Rights Commission in 2001.
This initiative was first presented back in 2001, at the former Human Rights Commission, with the title “Access to medicines in the context of pandemics such as HIV/AIDS”. Over the years it gradually included other pandemics, such as malaria and tuberculosis, as well as other health concerns, such as cancer, noncommunicable and neglected tropical diseases. In parallel with the expansion of the scope, the coordination of the negotiations was also expanded, first with the inclusion of our partners India and South Africa, and, since 2013, of China, Egypt, Indonesia, Senegal, and Thailand.
The Covid-19 pandemic provided the impetus for the Core Group’s new resolution.
Since the last adoption of this instrument in 2019, the COVID-19 crisis obliged us to deepen our understanding of the vital importance of access to medicines, vaccines and health products as a major component of the right to health. During this period, this topic, in its relations with COVID-19, has been object of four resolutions at the Council and included in several reports of the High Commissioner, presidential and joint statements, etc. All these documents further emphasized our original pledge of the continuing relevance of the need to guarantee medical products effectively, at reasonable cost and without discrimination to all, everywhere to also combat “persistent pandemics” such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, and other diseases, as well as to ensure better preparedness to potential health emergencies.
In closing, Ambassador Tovar da Silva Nunes (Brazil) underscored the principle of solidarity that underpinned the Core Group’s resolution.
The full enjoyment of the human right to health requires the full protection of all human rights within a State as well as a consistent international cooperation based on a strong spirit solidarity. Such solidarity is all the more necessary in the context of the exacerbated inequalities that have arisen within and among countries with COVID-19. All States have obligations under human rights laws in the international pursuit of health as a global public good.
One of the major lessons of Covid is that viruses and diseases don´t recognize borders. A healthier world for everyone implies better preparedness, which can only be achieved by strengthening local health systems. This implies the local production of medicines, vaccines and health products, addressing social determinants of health, securing end-to-end platforms for equitable access and fair distribution of health products, as well as extensive immunization. None of this can be achieved without international cooperation and solidarity.
At the adoption of this resolution, the Czech Republic provided the following response on behalf of the European Union.
The EU remains fully committed to enhancing access to essential medicines, vaccines and other health products in the context of realizing the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Therefore we join consensus on resolution L.13/Rev 1.
As in the past, one of the EU’s concerns is the risk of duplication with discussions in other fora. There is a significant amount of work going on globally in the area of access to medicines, vaccines, and other health products, and we acknowledge this joint work and coordination by the OHCHR, WHO, WTO, and WIPO. Therefore, the EU believes that selective quotations from resolutions of other expert fora should have been avoided. In such a cross cutting area, we encourage all states to engage in and contribute to the work conducted by those international organizations…
We believe that the resolution in the Human Rights Council should focus on inequalities among individuals, not between and among countries.
France underscored her position that the Covid-19 vaccine should be a global public good.
And faithful to the spirit of [the WHO] Constitution, very early on, France defended the fact that the Covid-19 vaccine would be a global public good in the name of four major principles: human rights, interdependence, cooperation, and solidarity.
The United Kingdom stated:
As raised during the negotiations, the UK remains concerned that the draft proposal addresses matters beyond the scope of the Human Rights Council. These include issues being considered before the World Health Organization including negotiations for a convention, agreement, or other international instrument for pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response.
China, as a member of the Core Group, provided the following statement.
At present, the Covid-19 is still spreading and the virus mutation is worrying. It has a negative impact on the economic and social development of all countries, especially develoing countries and seriously threatens people’s lives and health.
The Covid-19 vaccine is a powerful tool to fight the pandemic and should become a global public product. However, at present, problems of uneven distribution of vaccines and vaccination in the world are still outstanding. Such vaccination gaps need to be addressed urgently. China supports the United Nations call for a fair distribution of vaccines around the world and urges all countries to support developing countries to obtain vaccines in a timely manner in the spirit of unity and cooperation in order to improve the accessibility, affordability, and protection of vaccines to save lives and overcome the pandemic as soon as possible.
Cuba provided the following perspective.
We believe that the issue of access to medicines, vaccines, and other health products in the context of the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health is particularly relevant given the current challenges that we are facing.
Mr President, In a situation where the unjust and unequal economic order persists, it is undeniable that the impact of the pandemic has deepened inequalities both between countries and within them. Millions of people across the world have no access to health services. There are countries where vaccines against Covid-19 have been able to be rolled out to the entire population. In other countries, thinking about just one dose remains almost utopian. This situation is not solely within the remit of the Covid-19 pandemic but rather is also reflected in the way in which we address preventable and treatable disease across the world due to the unequal access to vaccines.
Cuba is committed cooperation in this area because we believe it is vital to have a joint coordinated effort from the international community to upend this situation.
Mr. President, The full enjoyment of this right to health is only possible with the full commitment of all states. Therefore we fully support draft resolution L.13/Rev 1 and we encourage members of the Council to adopt this initiative by consensus.
The United States issued a detailed clarification in relation to trade, intellectual property, public goods, and access and benefit-sharing.
The United States joins consensus on this important resolution and wishes to clarify our views on several provisions.
We underscore our position that trade language negotiated or adopted by the General Assembly in the Economic and Social Council or under their auspices has no relevance for US trade policy for our trade obligations or commitments or for the agenda at the World Trade Organization including discussions or negotiations in that forum.
While the UN and WTO share common interests, they have different roles, rules, and memberships. The United States understands with respect to this resolution that references to knowledge sharing and voluntary transfer of technology and know-how on mutally agreed terms.
Additionally, this resolution including paragraphs PP33 and OP3 and[OP]4 does not capture the carefully negotiated and balanced language on the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights and the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health. The United States understands that the references to immunization as a global public good refer to the global public health benefit resulting from extensive immunization of the global population.
We emphasize the importance of sharing pathogen samples and genetic sequence data and facilitating rapid and equitable access to public health information and medical countermeasures in the context of health emergencies. The United States notes, however, the reference in OP6(c) to internationally agreed principles as unclear and understands that there is not multilateral access and benefit sharing intstrument which mandates benefit sharing to be directly linked to the utilization of unique genetic sequence data.